Maybe Ed Rendell was right.
For those of you not familiar with Pennsylvania politics, “Fast Eddie” Rendell started out as Philadelphia’s District Attorney before moving on to become its Mayor. He will soon leave office after two terms as Governor, but in typical fashion he is going out with a bang.
I’ve always liked Rendell, largely because he is such a throwback to the old-fashioned pol of the nineteenth-century. He is a Man of the People, and if you’ve ever paid close attention to the People around you then you know just how strange and flawed he can be. To my knowledge he has never refuted the allegations that he offered $10 to anyone sitting next to him in the cheap seats in Veterans Stadium who could hit Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson with a snowball. He is big, loud, hearty, unpolished and sharp as a razor – most people never get a second chance to cross him. If you can make Philadelphia function, you can do anything.
Last month the Eagles were scheduled to play a Sunday night game against the Vikings, but Philadelphia got hit with a blizzard that dumped a foot of snow pretty much at game time so the NFL postponed the game to Tuesday.
Well. Fast Eddie wasn’t going to take that lying down. So he threw out a few snowballs of his own. It was a fascinating little rant, but nothing he said topped his opening line.
“We have become a nation of wusses,” he said.
Now, on one level, I think he was wrong. Yes, football players can play in bad weather, but 65,000 fans driving to and from a game in a blizzard is a public safety crisis waiting to happen - a threat not only to themselves but to the rescue personnel who would have to go retrieve them - and I’m not convinced a football game is worth that.
Certainly not this football game, anyway – when the two teams finally did play it was a game where the least awful team somehow managed not to lose. When I turned it off in protest the Eagles were still winning. I’m amazed that athletes get paid after games like that.
But on another level – a deeper, more social level – I think Rendell’s onto something.
We have become a nation unwilling to face harsh reality, unwilling to deal with anything that challenges our preconceived notions of how things ought to be.
We have a national debt out that is growing by the annual net worth of entire continents every year, and not only do we refuse to grow up and pay the taxes we need to pay to cover the services we demand but also we refuse to acknowledge this as a problem. We want more of the same policies that got us here in the first place, that (with the exception of the late 1990s) have been the hallmark of American political thinking since 1980 – spend and cut taxes, cut taxes and spend – and we’re just stealing from our children.
We are involved in two major wars with no clear idea of what it means to succeed and no public debate over why we’re still there, what we hope to accomplish or how we’re going to pay for it all. Anyone who brings up these points is immediately denounced as unpatriotic and a possible terrorist.
We have an infrastructure that is crumbling but no plans to replace or even fix it. For example, the shiny new governor here in Wisconsin made it clear well before his inauguration that he would cancel an ongoing rail project, on the grounds that, well, even having read his public statements on the matter I’m not sure how he justified it or how it fits into his plan to add rather than lose jobs in this state. It just does, that’s all, and no doubt he thinks I’m a bad citizen for questioning his authority.
We have a health care system that currently ranks 37th in the world in terms of effectiveness and efficiency, recent reforms notwithstanding, and the top legislative priority for the incoming class of legislators is sticking their heads further into the sand and undoing what little reforms were made. Because letting corporate bureaucrats determine who gets to live and who must die is just so American, apparently, as is adding to the above-mentioned national debt.
We are a nation of wusses.
This was brought home to me with especial force when I read the recent news that NewSouth Books will be publishing a new edition of Huckleberry Finn.
This edition will be largely identical in every respect to the old ones except for one big thing. It will take the word “nigger” and replace it with “slave.”
The thinking here is that “nigger” is a vile, offensive word and should not be allowed to sully our precious ears these days.
And it is indeed a vile, offensive word. It manages to compress centuries of racism, violence, arrogance, and brutality into two short syllables. It speaks of a time when human beings were bought and sold as livestock, treated as things, and subjected to contempt and degradation simply because of what they looked like. It stands as a foul blot on our nation’s history. You should be offended by that word. You should be horrified by that word. You should be sickened by that word.
And that is precisely the point.
Mark Twain was not an idiot. Nor – despite the popular caricature – was he some kind of loveable old coot telling stories to pass the time. He was a sharp observer and critic of his times and, in the way that such people often become when faced with the stark reality of their fellow human beings, a deeply cynical man with a streak of black humor dark enough to blot out the sun. Read Letters From the Earth sometime if you don’t believe me.
He put that word in that story for a reason.
He put that word in that story to ask why Jim, the moral heart of his story, was treated so poorly by people who were supposedly his betters. He put that word in the story to get you, the reader, think about who really was better, and what did that say about America? We have grand ideals in this country, but living up to them is an ongoing and only sporadically successful endeavor.
That word exists as an indictment of both the other characters in the story and the United States that produced them in a way that the more neutral “slave” does not (and how vile does a word have to be in order to make “slave” look neutral?).
Yet we refuse to face any of this.
To be told that the United States has problems and that these problems have shaped our history, that these problems still need to be faced, accepted and solved – apparently this is too much for our tender souls these days.
We want “America! Hell yeah!”
We want to live in a fantasyland where problems belong to other people, so we don’t have to face or solve them.
We are a nation of wusses.
When the Eagles finally did play their game that Tuesday night, Governor Rendell was there. Stadium workers had piled his seat full of snow and planted a sign in it that read, “This seat reserved for non-wussies.”
The cameras caught Rendell laughing as he put the sign away. I’m betting he kept it.